The suspected bombing of a Russian airliner over Egypt is raising concerns about security loopholes in the U.S., where the vast majority of the almost one million employees at airports aren’t subject to searches like those that travelers receive.
Intelligence reports that an airport worker may have been responsible for planting an explosive device on a Metrojet Airbus A321, which broke apart and crashed on Oct. 31, are a sobering reminder that terrorist groups might try to do the same thing here, said Representative John Katko, a New York Republican who is chairman of the House’s transportation security subcommittee.
“I do think that the Metrojet incident has really pointed up the seriousness of looking at the insider threat at airports, both domestically and internationally,” Katko said. “It’s become a much more urgent matter since the Metrojet bombing.”
In most cases, baggage handlers, ramp workers and others simply show their badges to enter areas where they can access baggage and aircraft. After a series of gun- and drug-smuggling cases at U.S. airports, the House last month passed legislation co-sponsored by Katko that would study whether it’s feasible to search all employees and also require tighter background checks. The legislation hasn’t been acted on by the Senate.
U.S. officials have increased security measures this year for airport workers, but the Transportation Security Administration and an advisory panel made up of aviation industry groups and worker unions have rejected full screening. Searching every employee wouldn’t be a “silver bullet” improvement to security and would be more costly than other methods, a TSA advisory panel concluded this year.
That is a mistake, particularly as a result of intelligence reports suggesting sympathizers of ISIS, an acronym for the Islamic State that is fighting against governments in Iraq and Syria, were behind the Metrojet crash, according to John Halinski, the former deputy administration of TSA.
“Unfortunately, the bad guys don’t play by the rules,” Halinski said. “We have to evolve to meet the next threat, not the last one. This would be the next threat.”
A spokesman for the agency asked this week about airport security, referred to statements U.S. officials made in recent months expressing confidence in the layers of protection at the nation’s airports. Security has also been enhanced for flights heading to the U.S. from overseas airports in response to the Egyptian crash.
There have been at least eight cases brought in the past year by prosecutors charging airport workers in the U.S. with using their employee status to smuggle drugs, weapons or other contraband into secure areas so that they could then be brought aboard aircraft.
Last July, 46 people were indicted on federal charges they were part of a ring that conspired to smuggle heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine through Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport in Texas. Four members of the group were airport workers who used their employee identification badges to skirt security, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office indictment.
One suspect in the Texas case told an informant it was a good thing that terrorists didn’t know about the security loophole because it would allow explosives to be smuggled onto a plane, according to court testimony by a U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation agent supplied by Katko’s office.
Melinda Haag, who served as U.S. Attorney for northern California until Sept. 1, brought four such cases this year against airport workers in San Francisco and Oakland, California. Another case was brought by her former office on Nov. 7.
“It is troubling to learn that there’s a whole category of people who don’t go through the same stringent level of screening, who have equal or better access to airport facilities and the aircraft,” Haag said. “The airports are only as secure as the least secure person who works there.”
New York Flights
Brooklyn, New York, District Attorney Kenneth Thompson on Dec. 30 brought charges against a group that allegedly smuggled 129 weapons aboard airliners from Atlanta to New York. Some of the weapons, which included assault rifles, were loaded, Thompson said.
He called the case “deeply troubling” because it showed the potential for a terrorist to gain access to a plane. “They could have easily put a bomb on one of those planes,” he said in a press conference last year.
As a result of the investigation, a TSA advisory panel studied how to improve security and rejected the need for full airport worker screening. The Aviation Security Advisory Committee, which issued a report on its findings, is made up of airport, airline and union officials.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, following the panel’s recommendations, announced security changes on April 20, including increasing random searches of airport workers and reducing the number of access doors to sensitive areas.
“I am confident that the potential insider-threat posed by aviation industry employees will be significantly mitigated as a result of these recommendations,” Johnson said.
Katko’s bill calls for an additional study to estimate how much it would cost to begin fully searching all airport employees. The lawmaker said he expects the projections will be for tens of billions of dollars.
It’s currently impractical to screen everyone at many airports because the facilities were designed to give employees easy access to secure areas to improve efficiency, he said. Some employees frequently move in and out of secure areas as part of their work, making repeated screening time-consuming.
In spite of those hurdles, the government needs to do more, from additional searches to keeping a closer eye on whether employees have violated the law, he said. He called the results of his research in the past year “pretty scary.”
“The more questions we asked, the more we became convinced that these holes needed to be plugged,” he said.
This article was written by Alan Levin from Bloomberg and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.